[THEATRE REVIEW] WOLF PLAY @ Red Stitch Theatre Review (2023)
Put succinctly, intriguing.
“What if I said I am not what you think you see? I am the wolf.” These are among the first words spoken in this remarkable drama by South Korean playwright Hansol Jung.
She was inspired to write Wolf Play after reading a news article about Facebook and Yahoo groups used by some parents to re-home their adopted children.
It had its world premiere at a repertory theatre company in Oregon in March 2019.
The contention is as follows:
We are in the US.
A husband, Peter Hunt (Charlie Cousin) and wife Katie, who have a six-year-old adopted son and a new, infant, biological daughter, are not coping.
So, Katie (who we don’t see) puts their son, known initially as Peter Junior, up for sale on the internet via Yahoo.
Robin Shepherd (Jing-Xuan Chan), who is keen to start a family, responds to the ad
and represents herself as being in a committed male/female relationship.
When Peter travels to meet Robin and hand over the papers, and with them his son, a Korean boy, he sees Robin with a man who he presumes is her husband.
Really, it is Robin’s brother Ryan (Kevin Hofbauer), who runs a boxing studio and who can’t say he is too keen on what Robin is about to do.
For Robin’s part, she is, in truth, in a committed lesbian relationship with a promising boxer, Ash (Brooke Lee), which doesn’t go down well with Peter.
He is afraid that Peter Junior won’t have a father figure in his life.
On the other hand, based upon the internet photo Katie posted, Robin was expecting to set eyes upon a much young child, perhaps aged three.
And Robin’s partner Ash wasn’t on board with the decision to adopt in the first place.
Ryan has been preparing Ash for five years for a shot at a professional boxing career.
If the picture I have just presented sounds mixed up enough, the kicker is yet to come.
Though the child, who – in time – tells us his name is Jeenu, looks like a human being, he is actually a wolf (or, perhaps, he only believes he is one).
He howls like a wolf and has a pack mentality like the animal.
He also marks his turf like a wolf and forms a closer bond to Ash than to Robin, much to the latter’s chagrin.
The child is represented by a faceless white dummy, but spoken for by Yuchen Wang, who shadows Jeenu throughout.
From time to time, Wang – speaking on behalf of Jeenu – drops asides, like “wolves know how to fight” and “wolves don’t like yoga”.
Wolf Play has a number of humorous moments and despite its less than conventional storyline, bravura acting generates intense interest and credibility.
I found myself heavily invested in what was unfolding. In short, I cared deeply about what would happen to this kid.
Yuchen Wang’s playfulness, his interactions with and vocalisation of Jeenu are compelling. The pair is as one. Wang becomes the wolf and speaks for the wolf.
That is quite something to see. I thought it was a magnificent performance.
It was also fascinating to watch the transition of Ash’s non-binary character – from angry and distanced, to heavily invested – as personified by Brooke Lee. I believed them. Surely that is the essence of a good actor.
For Jing-Xuan Chan, caring for and loving Jeenu is an emotional tug of war. She tries the carrot and stick approach, but the wolf inevitably holds the upper hand. Again, I was intrigued to watch Chan’s interactions with an inanimate object – with a blank puppet.
Kevin Hofbauer can be genuinely scary, breathing fire and brimstone as Chan’s brother, Ryan. There is push and pull in their interplay. He doesn’t want to see her hurt, but recognises she isn’t managing. He is also heavily invested in guiding Ash’s burgeoning career. Hofbauer brings an abundance of passion to his role.
Charlie Cousin has a tortured intensity in his characterisation as Peter. It is as if he is on the edge of cliff. He recognises he has made a mistake and angles to find a way back into Jeenu’s life. That involves wearing down Ryan. You dare not look away.
Director Isabella Vadiveloo has done a terrific job ensuring the material is brought to life. The actors have clearly followed her instructions to a tee, bringing out the very best in them.
Sam Diamond’s ostensibly blue set design (with three, white, Adidas-like stripes), representing Jeenu’s favoured colour, makes quite a statement.
Think blue celebratory balloons, an all-blue working kitchen, a large blue standing lamp and blue couch, table and chairs.
The company has ensured that Wolf Play sings. It is a powerful, highly imaginative and extraordinary piece of work, well conceived and superbly executed. It is on at Red Stitch Theatre until 2nd April, 2023.
Words by Alex First. Photography by Jodie Hutchinson.